Hong Kong’s environment authority has given its conditional approval to an environmental report on the impact of building 12,000 public flats at the 112 year-old Fanling golf course. 

Fanling golf course
Fanling golf course. Photo: Wikicommons.

The Advisory Council on the Environment (ACE), a body under the Environmental Protection Department, delayed its decision on whether to approve the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) last August, asking the government to conduct more ecological assessments and resubmit the report.

On Thursday, the director of environmental protection announced that the EIA had been “approved with conditions” after careful examination and full consideration of the comments from the public and members of the ACE.

Approval will depend on further submission of a revised plan to preserve 0.4 hectares of woodland at the golf course, and a detailed plan to “minimise the impact on tree preservation, landscape and visual aspects arising from the proposed housing development.”

Environment Protection Department Advisory Council on the Environment
The meeting of Advisory Council on the Environment on December 7, 2020. Photo: Wong Kam-sing’s Facebook.

Towards the end of 2022, 13 of 20 members of the ACE stepped down, six of whom had not completed their term of six years, a practice that Ming Pao reported was “unusual.” According to the newspaper, at least two of the six had questioned the government’s public housing plan for Fanling golf course.

After new appointments were made to the council, the number of environmental scholars and people with a background in green organisations in the committee declined from six to four, the same news report revealed.

Last week, the ACE with newly appointed members said it agreed that the latest EIA submitted by the government was sufficient, while advising the Environmental Protection Department to lay out certain conditions for the project.

Following the conditional approval, the Development Bureau pledged in a statement to follow up on the requests made by the environment authority with relevant departments, adding that it “remains the intention of the Government to develop public housing at the northernmost portion of the area.”

fanling golf course
A document showing the government planned to develop the sub-area 1 of Fanling Golf Course for public housing. Photo: Advisory Council on the Environment.

Public hearings on the draft development plan of Fanling and Sheung Shui will be launched by the Town Planning Board. It will seek to extend the submission deadline of the draft plan by six months to ensure sufficient time for the deliberation process, according to the statement.

As the tenancy of the Fanling golf course will expire on August 31, the land will be resumed by the government on September 1 as planned, the development authorities added.

‘A great set-back’

The Hong Kong Golf Club, the current tenant of the 32-hectare site of the proposed housing project, said in a statement on Thursday that it deeply regretted the decision of the Environmental Protection Department.

Calling the EIA “full of serious flaws and errors,” the club said the conditions and migration measures set out by the environmental body would not be enough to ensure the integrity of the ecosystem on the golf course.

Fanling golf course
Fanling golf course. Photo: Citizen News.

“The approval… represents a great set-back to the city’s efforts to enhance its liveability and combat climate change. Most importantly, it is tantamount to trampling over an important piece of the city’s culture and heritage, as well as the culture and history of the indigenous villagers of the North District,” the statement by the club read.

The club said it will closely monitor the Government’s next steps while making its best endeavours to preserve the ecology of the century-old area of living heritage.

Responding to the ACE’s decision to delay its initial decision on the EIA last year, Chan Kim-hing, the founder of Liber Research Community, a non-profit research group that studies land use, said: “If the ecological value or the environmental value of the land was so great, it does not make sense for it to be used as a golf course, as they use a lot of water and have been called ‘toxic green’, meaning a lot of agrochemicals are used for their upkeep.”

12,000 housing units

The plan to potentially develop the golf course at Fanling has stoked controversy since it was introduced in 2017, with groups supporting the plan and golfers who wished to preserve the golf course clashing in 2018.

The government accepted a proposal to develop 32 hectares of land from the 172-hectare Fanling site in 2019. According to official documents, about nine hectares of land will be used to build some 12,000 flats, which can accommodate around 33,600 people.

Land resumption at the Fanling golf course is considered a short-to-medium relief measure for Hong Kong’s housing crunch.

Chief Executive John Lee has made providing public housing one of the central pillars of his administration, although those who have already waited years for public housing do not expect much to change.

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Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.